Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Katherine Philips as Political Playwright: "The Songs between the Acts" in Pompey

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Katherine Philips as Political Playwright: "The Songs between the Acts" in Pompey

Article excerpt

On 10 February 1663, Katherine Philips's translation of Pierre Corneilles La Mort de Pompee, with five songs she wrote to link the acts, was performed in Dublin. Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, facilitated the play's professional production at the new Smock Alley Theatre, helping with funds for expensive costumes and professional singers from the cathedral. By April, John Crooke had published the text of Philips's translation in Dublin; he published another edition in London later that year. (1) In addition to having the play performed and printed, Philips arranged for a presentation manuscript of the play to be sent to the Duchess of York, wife of King Charles's heir, James, and she later arranged for a copy to be sent to the king. Philips's deliberate dissemination of the play to three audiences--Dublin playgoers, print readers, and also a London court readership--suggests that she had particular public and political aims in translating the play. The lavish production of Pompey in Dublin was the first play by a woman to be performed on a British commercial stage and was in the vanguard of Restoration drama. Pompey was Philips's first dramatic translation. (2) She was already known, as "Orinda," for her lyric poetry, which circulated primarily in manuscript. In letters she wrote to Sir Charles Cotterell during the period of translation, published in 1705 as Letters from Orinda to Poliarchus, Philips does not explicitly state her reasons for choosing this particular play, (3) but two key elements of the plot of Pompey engaged contemporary English and Irish political concerns in the early years of the Restoration. After the Battle of Pharsalus in the Roman civil wars, the virtuous Pompey is betrayed by Ptolemy and beheaded, and Cleopatra, returned from exile, is crowned at the end of the play. The execution of King Charles I in 1649 is certainly evoked in the play's sympathetic treatment of the murdered Pompey, and the restoration of Cleopatra's right to a usurped throne might also be read as an analogy of the recent restoration of monarchy. These events in Pompey brought to mind the traumatic events of the recent civil wars in England and Ireland from the perspective of the even more recent, and still precarious, restoration of monarchy and court. So relevant seemed the story to contemporary political events that a group including Edmund Waller was also simultaneously translating Corneille's play in London. (4)

Having been sent a number of prologues and epilogues for the production, Philips chose a prologue by the Earl of Roscommon (letter 25, 119-20). The prologue begins:

   The mighty Rivals, whose destructive Rage
   Did the whole World in Civil Armes engage:
   Are now agreed, and make it both their Choice
   To have their Fates determin'd by your Voice. (5)

This celebration of an end to "Civil Armes" asks the audience, later addressed as "Catos" to judge the "Rivals." The prologue explicitly positions the play as political, and encourages the audience to interpret analogically. The "Epilogue" by Sir Edward Dering, apparently anticipating contested interpretations, begins "Pleas'd or displeas'd, censure as you think fit, / The Action, Plot, the Language or the Wit." The epilogue later emphasizes that the language is "chast" and "harmless is the sense" (11. 1-2, 7). The defensiveness of the last statement may be an attempt to shape responses to a political play by a woman, but also suggests an awareness that the political implications of the play might not be totally "harmless."

As a whole, Philips's Pompey does not present a simple Royalist allegory of regicide and restoration, but suggests a more complex political analysis of British history and politics. The analogical relations between certain Roman and English characters and events which seem striking at first glance are less than straightforward when considered in detail. Philips's songs further complicate political readings of the play by evoking dramatic irony, by suggesting motivation that is not explicit in the play proper, and by adding characters to the entr'acte scenes. …

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